SARS Outbreak Prompts Rapid Funding Response

An alarming new respiratory disease that has spread from southern China to 17 countries on three continents in the span of 3 months has perplexed the international scientific and medical communities. The World Health Organisation considers severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, to be the first severe and easily transmissible new disease to emerge in the 21st century. The source and identification of the disease-causing agent--as well as its modes of transmission from person to person--have become the focus of infectious diseases experts around the globe. And one group--at the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Center in British Columbia--is already reporting that it has sequenced the genome of the causative agent. (You can read about the global research effort in the 11 April issue of Science magazine.)

Last week, Canadian scientists were given added incentive to join the search for the causes and consequences of SARS. On 10 April, the CIHR Institute of Infection and Immunity announced $500,000 in new funding for SARS research projects--the first available in Canada to address SARS. "When faced with diseases like SARS, CIHR and the Institute of Infection and Immunity must be able to mobilize the research community and thus need to have the flexibility and resources for a rapid response," Dr. Bhagirath Singh, scientific director of the Institute of Infection and Immunity and professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Western Ontario, tells Next Wave Canada. And researchers will indeed need to mobilize quickly to take advantage of the funding--the deadline proposal submission is 25 April 2003, and decisions regarding the successful proposals will be announced on 15 May 2003.

Teams of researchers are asked to submit proposals that involve collecting and analysing blood and tissue samples from individuals affected by SARS; developing rapid diagnostic tests for SARS; studying the immune status of individuals recently afflicted with SARS, both during the course of the illness and following recovery; and developing models that simulate the transmission pattern of the SARS agent to assess the impact of various intervention options and find the optimal strategy for control.

The recent outbreaks of SARS and West Nile virus in Canada and last year's bioterrorist attacks in the United States are focusing the attention of public health officials and governments on the potential for future outbreaks of infectious diseases--and just how well equipped the scientific and medical communities are to handle them. The abrupt appearance of these and other infectious diseases, says Singh, only "underlines the fact that the research community must be able to respond to emerging health challenges both in the short term and in the long term. To do this, we need trained investigators of infectious diseases with expertise in basic and clinical research, health services, and the ethical and sociobehavioural issues that affect public policy."

CIHR Training Centres in Infectious Diseases

Principal Investigator

Program Title

Total Award (millions)

James A. Dosman

Public health and the agricultural rural ecosystem ( PHARE), University of Saskatchewan


Richard Ellen

Cell signaling in mucosal inflammation & pain, University of Toronto


Paul Kubes

A transdisciplinary training program in diseases of immunopathogenesis and inflammation, University of Calgary


Francis A. Plummer

International Centre for Infectious Diseases training program, University of Manitoba (see below)


Reinhart A. Reithmeier

Structural biology of membrane proteins linked to disease, Hospital for Sick Children (Toronto)


Paul H Roy

Résistance aux agents antimicrobiens, Centre hospitalier de l'Université Laval


Erwin A. Schurr

Training Centre in Integrative Biology of Infectious Diseases and Autoimmunity, McGill University


But to make sure that Canada has experts with the skills and resources already in place to deal with emerging threats will require a long-term investment in the research careers and projects of talented researchers working in infectious diseases--a fact that the CIHR is very much aware of, Singh explains. The public profile of SARS and the West Nile virus, he continues, may be reaching the point at which pressure is placed on the government to increase investment in public health measures and in infectious disease research and training.

To its credit, the CIHR's funding response to the scientific threat of SARS was swift and, moreover, the granting council had already shown a strong commitment to training the next generation of infectious disease researchers by establishing seven (soon to be nine) training centres in infectious diseases across Canada (see box above).

Furthermore, the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Immunity has devoted more than $4 million per year to fund five research projects in infectious diseases though New Emerging Teams (NETs) programs. So, as the research community in infectious diseases continues to grow larger and stronger (see box below), Singh says that researchers can expect an even more focused approach to the funding of research in this area in the future.

Other Infectious Disease Research Links

Centre for Microbial Diseases and Immunity Research (CMDR), University of British Columbia

The CMDR is a multifaculty, multidepartment consortium of researchers in microbial diseases and immunology conducting research in the molecular mechanisms of bacterial, viral, fungal, and microbial parasite pathogenesis. It encourages collaboration among researchers utilizing different approaches to pursue similar problems; promotes graduate and undergraduate education in microbial diseases and immunology; and seeks to increase access to research funding by encouraging involvement from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries and by promoting group and collaborative research grant proposals.

National Microbiology Laboratory (NML), Winnipeg, Manitoba

The federally funded NML is located in the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health in Winnipeg. The modern state-of-the-art facility houses Canada's only operational biological safety level 4 (BSL-4) containment laboratory, one of just 15 such laboratories in the world. NML's research and service programs encompass diagnostic and reference microbiology and virology, disease surveillance, fundamental research and the development of new products and methods in microbiology and infectious diseases, and study of emerging pathogens. In addition, the NML, in cooperation with the University of Manitoba (see training centre above), will play a role in the training of technicians, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows in areas ranging from fundamental biology to disease and outbreak surveillance, to public health interventions for disease prevention. And in another collaborative effort with the CIHR, last year, NML established the Clinician Scientist Infectious Disease training program, a pilot project aimed at encouraging bench-to-bedside research, worth a total of $500,000. The two organizations co-fund the work of up to three clinician-scientists conducting research on a range of concerns including virology, bacteriology, HIV, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases, prion diseases, and zoonotic diseases.

Microbiology/Infectious Diseases Research Fellowship Program

Bristol-Myers Squibb Canada established a Microbiology/Infectious Diseases Research Fellowship Program in 2002. This annual award (of an undisclosed amount) is made to a physician who has been accepted into a postgraduate training program in Canada committed to infectious disease research.

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